“SPIRITUAL CANCER” is what Pope Francis called it when he warned the South Korean youth about the dangers of materialism on his visit in 2014. Four years later, Korea’s spending on luxury goods and overall consumerist culture has continued to expand. Cities in Korea are full of street clothes vendors, massive underground shopping malls, and public transit stations posted with advertisements for plastic surgery and cosmetics. At a glance, this outwardly affluent, material-based, distinctly competitive society comes across as superficial. However, a deeper social and economic understanding of Korea indicates that a culture of materialism is not necessarily bad for the Korean people.
The reason why Koreans are identified as highly materialistic stems from a viewpoint that takes into account visible and easily priced consumptions. In Korea, Louis Vuitton bags used to be coined “three-second bags,” because you could supposedly see one every three seconds in the popular areas of Seoul. These days, however, Korean consumers no longer heavily focus on the brand itself, but more on the merits of owning the product. The emphasis has largely shifted away from the well-known brand names of the past toward less showy items like fine jewelry and streetwear fashion. Expensive streetwear house names and fashion trends are so popular that even those who lack the means to afford the originals have access to the image through buying designer knock-offs. Currently, countless street merchants in places like Ewha or Myeongdong, can be seen selling fake Balenciaga Triple S sneakers, Supreme fanny packs, and Off-White belts.
Culturally, Koreans tend to have a high sense of aesthetics, which is too often mistaken for superficiality. Personal presentation is a point of confidence and often a necessity at work and in certain social circles. Particularly among younger generations, spending to improve one’s outward appearance is a social norm, whether it be on clothes, cosmetics, or plastic surgery. Dressing badly does not make someone less materialistic than those who dress well, just as wanting to live in a home with modern luxuries is not necessarily materialistic, but desiring a higher quality of life. In Korea’s highly competitive society, what may appear as vain or shallow to outside perspectives is often considered an obligation to get a leg up on others.
The nature of fierce competition correlates with the meteoric economic growth that the country underwent. Just half a century ago, the country was one of the world’s poorest, but within a single generation, South Korea moved from starvation to prosperity. For people who used to have nothing, having something is considered important. Accumulating or showing off material items has been seen in virtually every society that has moved from industrial to post-industrial. It is of no surprise that this type of nouveau-riche culture lent itself to a high level societal competition and material consumption.
South Korea is materialistic because every capitalistic society is inherently materialistic. According to statistics, Korea is actually a relatively non-materialistic country among developed nations. One way economists objectively define materialism is by evaluating household final consumption expenditure (% GDP). Economists look at this ratio in combination with savings rates to determine if the people of a country are spending too much of their income on material things. As of 2016, the World Bank Group estimates this ratio for Korea to be 48.8%, as compared to the United States at 68.8% and Japan at 55.7%. Based on this data, it is evident that South Korea spends far less on material possessions in contrast to what it makes among capitalistic societies, making it by an economist’s definition, less materialistic.
While the word materialism connotes negativity, Korea’s spending on material goods currently does not point to anything harmful in its society. Within the past year and a half, the phrase si-bal bi-yong, or “fuck-it expenses,” has grown in popularity on social media to describe young South Koreans’ impulsive spending on items to relieve stress. Due to the highly competitive Korean job market, many young Koreans have struggled for work within the past few years. In 2017, the youth unemployment rate reached 9.9%, the highest year average since 2000, according to Statistics Korea of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. Since a big purchase like an apartment or a car is beyond the budget for most young people, they spend on smaller purchases that are within their reach. By spending on material goods and excess services, they focus on transient but rich pleasures of the moment, such as visiting expensive cafes and interacting with the interior, music, and atmosphere. Older populations, particularly those who lived through Korea’s late 1990’s IMF crisis, value long-term investments and look down on these ephemeral actions as wasteful. This escapist culture of spending more on smaller goods now does not indicate a heightened sense of materialism among Korean youth, but the overall generational shift in value of the present over the future. In doing what they please and by showing off, young Koreans generate happiness by creating a sense of meaning in their lives, which starkly differs from the ways of previous generations.
In rising to become the fourth largest economy in Asia and eleventh in the world, Koreans are proud of the hard-working, competitive culture that led to the country’s rapid economic growth. For those who can, being able to buy excess material and luxury goods is a means of celebrating that national success. What appears on the surface-level to be a society engulfed by superficiality and materialism, is in fact a country embracing their cultural accomplishments and financial freedoms.